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Threads of Progress Adhering to Modern Art in Turkey
Ali Akay Available online: 19 Feb 2008

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99–104 Threads of Progress Adhering to Modern Art in Turkey Ali Akay Downloaded by [Koc University] at 06:05 30 March 2012 It would be useful to start with the notion of ‘modern’ since the period I will cover here will be mostly the 1980s and ‘90s. reveals a rupture of difference in today’s Turkey. The concept of ‘modern’ or the question ‘what is modern?’ must first recognise a thread going back to the nineteenth century in the Ottoman DOI: 10. Issue 1. in spite of all the political repression.1080/09528820701855483 . As Jean-Paul Sartre said of the Nazi Occupation of France. This encounter was the prelude to Turkish modernity in art. similar in its way to those undergone in the 1980s during the revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua. We too in Turkey might speak of a certain benefit of freedom after 12 September. This means that modernism need not refer to what it meant in the nineteenth century or the early twentieth century.tandf.Third Text. January. but that in its turn brought about a new transformation. so to speak. and were introduced to perspectival depictions of spatial relationship on a flat surface. an altermodernity. Traditional aesthetic sensibilities and expressions were in decline and as a consequence modernity was simply defined as new and Western. 2008. following the military coup on 12 September 1980. and in the midst of discourses on postmodernism and postcolonialism. the decades when Istanbul began to turn into what it has become today. and ‘post’ becomes the prefix of an ongoing modern condition. when a number of artists went to study painting in Paris. The notion of ‘postmodern’ in a sense comes before ‘modern’. the human rights violations and the incidents of Third Text ISSN 0952-8822 print/ISSN 1475-5297 online © Third Text (2008) ‘the drole de guerre was the time we most benefited from’. There is a need therefore to consider a different modernity. Modernism in Western Europe was abandoning its own former traditional techniques as retrograde. specific to Turkish art history. Recent history. rather than what was newest to Western art. Jean-François Lyotard says that every postmodern condition engenders the ‘modern’ without bringing what modernism meant in the nineteenth century or at the beginning of the twentieth century into play. whereas in Turkey these were paradoxically appropriated as progressive. The September military coup brought a new oppression. 22. Vol. We might therefore consider the history of the present in Turkey as its postmodern ‘modern history’ in line with this paradoxical thread.

The 1990s introduced new materials to art practice. In that period. Concepts behind exhibitions like ‘The Other’. introducing greater freedom which attracted Iranians to catch Turkish InterStar TV on satellite and tune in to erotic films. This sequence of events and inputs triggered the dynamics of the present art scene in Turkey and differentiates the postmodern theoretical discourse of the 1990s from the previous three decades. Karamustafa’s ‘Quilts and Carriages’. This issue came to special prominence after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Issues such as the south-east Kurdish question and the Armenian ¸ question came to life in that period of rupture. The Laleli neighbourhood in Istanbul could be seen as an important laboratory in this context. so too a similar link occurred within the AK party. I would like to talk about something else that also has a bearing on its political and intellectual conditioning. its Natashas and migration. exhibited at the 3rd Istanbul Biennial in 1992. ‘Deterritorialisation’. Ayse Erkmen and Gülsün Karamustafa among others in the ‘An Anthology of Turkish Avant-garde Art’ exhibition. the collapse of the Eastern bloc and Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union.100 1 The right-liberal politician who integrated Turkey into global capitalism during the dominant period of neoliberalism in the 1980s. Intellectuals such as S erif ˙ Mardin and Idris Küçükömer had repeatedly posed the question of hegemony in Turkey in the 1960s. ‘Chaos and Ambivalence’ and ‘Minor Politics or Minor Literature’ were derived from French poststructuralists such as Deleuze and Guattari who enter directly into the forefront of the arts. such as ‘Youth Event’ (Genç Etkinlikler). Sli [e c ] d dt Io [] sli c [ e ] d Downloaded by [Koc University] at 06:05 30 March 2012 . Just as in Iran. and the mafias of Russia and Eastern Europe fuelled by the suitcase trade. Telecommunications of this sort made Istanbul a global city and something of a centre of gravity in the region. women from Russia and the Eastern bloc were involved in a huge ‘suitcase trade’. the party in power in Turkey now. organised by the Plastic Art Association in Istanbul in 1995.2 With the exhibition ‘Istanbul’ at Taksim Art Center (Taksim Sanat Gallery) in1992. I should mention a number of exhibitions at this point. but the Gramscian line of Marxism with its ‘civil society’ models only began to be argued after 1980. where partisans of the Left and the Islamic opposition became allies during the coup. put the issue of migration on the agenda. 2 torture. looking ahead to the ‘Focus Istanbul’ exhibition in Berlin (June 2005) and 9th Istanbul Biennial (September 2006). Istanbul for the first time considered a concept that foregrounded transcultural shifts of borders within interdisciplinary practices and discourses. Following this thread. one could encounter both the rising new Istanbul resourcing artistic elements and the new bourgeois. All such women traffickers. whether prostitutes or not. which spurred curators Rosa Martínez and René Block to choose artists for their biennials from this show. He was the Turkish equivalent of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. which led to Istanbul becoming a world city and centre for the arts. Istanbul began to regain its cosmopolitan identity with the ruse of a policy of transparency. The year 1987 marks a turning point of progress for the artists Yusuf ¸ Taktak. Some of them were prostitutes during the 1990s in Istanbul. After the fall of the Soviet regime. as this was the locus for the huge so-called ‘suitcase trade’ of women from post-Soviet Russia and its former Eastern bloc satellites. we must look back to the Turgut Özal1 era in the 1980s for the emergence of a neoliberal economy and popular culture. which defines the contemporary arts in Turkey. Another progressive element was that the arts joined the opposition to the military coup. Again. Children of Turkish origin in the Balkans were meanwhile watching cartoons on Turkish TV and beginning to speak Turkish. Private television and radio channels also first appeared at the beginning of the 1990s. were called ‘Natasha’ by Turks because it was a common name among them.

101 Downloaded by [Koc University] at 06:05 30 March 2012 The question of a divided Greek–Turkish Cyprus was also put on the agenda in 1996. in the city of Gumru in 2000. Only after a series of exhibitions did the curator of the Istanbul Biennial visit Diyarbakır to observe the Kurdish artists’ contribution. Nevertheless. ¸ A group of Turkish artists. went to Armenia to take part in the 2nd Gyumri Biennial. ‘Cosmopolite’ (2004). curated by Gülsen Bal. provoked by the raising of the Turkish flag on that island. turned into something of a focal centre for art having previously been on the periphery. This action has the merit of political reinvigoration which at last can face the sensitive issue of Armenia’s grievance and Turkey’s past history. The significance of this participation was that for the first time contemporary Turkish artists approached Armenia. The Kardak Crisis occurred in 1996 when Turkey and Greece both claimed a miniscule island in the Aegean Sea which belonged to neither of them. . as well as the Istanbul Biennials organised by René Block in 1995 and Rosa Martínez in 1997. artists from east Turkey and others from the western region encompassing the problematics of that diverse geography. Issues relating to Cyprus were again present during the Kardak crisis. 2007 DIYARBAKIR AND FORCE OF THE LANGUAGE 3 The Green Line in Cyprus is a provisional border between the Greek Cypriot Administration and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. These exhibitions were held in Istanbul and in Athens between 1996 and 1997. Diyarbakır in south-east Turkey. which included Kurdish artists. close to the Iraqi border. The Kardak crisis. The shows tried to highlight what was at stake in the area of political development through their mixing up of new and past languages. artists from south-east Turkey were brought to attention by the ‘Youth Event’ exhibitions. 4 At the beginning of the 2000s. This group of artists recently began to describe itself as ‘generation 95’. The initiative for political development was taken in the arts. which I curated in Cyprus in the midst of national unease. which strove to bring the divided people from South and North Cyprus together in some positive way. I curated an exhibition ‘Force of The Language–Becoming Minor’ in 2004. These artistic initiatives took a first step towards peaceful negotiations around the Turkish–Greek question by organising conferences both in Greece and in Cyprus. I went on to curate another exhibition. Erden Kosova later organised an exhibition with another curator from South Cyprus at Ledra Palas on the notorious Green Line3 as a continuation of these exhibition themes and intentions. Since the beginning of the 2000s extraordinary efforts to create relevant exhibitions have been inhibited due to a conflict of policies between the EU and Turkey. explored this conflictual terrain by enlisting artists from the four parts of the political geographies relating to Cyprus. I introduced the notion of the ‘minority’ population in the exhibition ‘Becoming-minor’ (1996). Promenade dans l’installation de Daniel Buren . Also at this time the exhibition ‘What If’.4 in the group exhibitions which brought Turkish and Greek artists into alliance. ˘ ˘ Ani Setyan and Seza Paker. Müserref Zeytino g lu. The artistic qualities of those exhibitions were not as important as the aim to bring together the works of elder and new generations of artists. in Thessaloniki. These tensions made it difficult to mount this exhibition. Military forces from both countries sought to erect their own flags on the island. Emre Zeytino g lu. It took place at the Keçiburcu art centre in Diyarbakir. ge [e b r v ] sli c [ e ] d ge [e b r v ] 1 Seza Paker. almost caused a war between Turkey and Greece.

meaning that events may force them to take up a position amid their discourses of manifest stance. Promenade dans l’installation de Daniel Buren. Dynamics are meanwhile impelling them to define their own new position in the near future. ‘Force of The Language–Becoming Minor’ drew on contemporary language usage from the Diyarbakır region and Istanbul. or. constitutes a semiotic chain of signs without being obliged to transfer into one another and destroy each other’s uniqueness.102 Downloaded by [Koc University] at 06:05 30 March 2012 Seza Paker. 2007 For the first time. A language where poetry and the use of sound traverse each other. Today. thereby problematising the force of language in visual arts. a discourse in which individualisation will occur as a psychical. as Tarde and Simondon put it. Istanbul is becoming more cosmopolitan day by day. a situation understood through a Gramscian perspective of hegemony and class struggle. and we will witness what Giorgio Agamben has called the ‘community to come’ which has a non-community structure. collective process. in the exhibition ‘Deterritorialisation’. and I hope this will mean that not only minorities but also all communities based on identities will disappear. The exhibition added performative motion and sound to the image. Kurdish artists brought the Kurdish question directly onto the political agenda of the arts within the ‘Youth Event’ exhibitions. this ‘generation 95’ made the Kurdish question visible to us by conveying the emptied villages of south-east Turkey to exhibition spaces. On one hand. They seem intentionally stuck between these two discourses. The works on display articulate the Seven Deadly Sins through a welter of images from fashion tattoos as part of . in this sense. they refer to ‘positional wars’. On the other. This brings us yet again to address the central question: Istanbul. this group adopted a ‘minor approach’ by criticising both Turkish and Kurdish nationalism. ‘generation 95’ describes itself as a group who envision the Kurdish issue from an artistic angle that stands between two paradigms.

the anxieties and domestic position of women. together with entirely new media.103 contemporary body language. reflection manifests itself as ghost: a ‘spectre is haunting our world’ – and it is reflection itself. filled six floors of the multipurpose hall of Akbank Art Center with an interlinked project in which established art frontiers shifted and dissolved in drifting passages through a paradoxical world. animations of burning oil wells and a Japanese rap song. 2005 Downloaded by [Koc University] at 06:05 30 March 2012 ART AS REFLECTION Art is undergoing a process of reflection. Kurt Schwitters’s Dada Ur sonat. In this context. Traditional painting techniques have been used by artists who present spontaneous images ironi¸ cally. the connections of the folkloric with the contemporary world. to the conflict of political protests and progressive policies. developed this new kind of art in the Turkish art milieu. In particular. which have begun to participate in the mainstream art of the West. producers of paintings and sculptures have. 2 Sarkis. Sarkis. 2005 . a movement has come from countries of the so-called periphery. Akbank Art Center in Istanbul. Inci Eviner and Ömer Uluç from the older generation. Another example is the ‘Sarkis: A Milestone’ exhibition that I arranged at the Akbank Art Center. cinema and philosophy all crisscross each other. Serkan Özkaya. like Turkey. A Milestone. side by side. This process of mixing art with advertising and sli c [ e ] d dt Io [] Sarkis. It is well known that today’s art is related to the worlds of televisual communication and advertising in which painting. in 2005. Sarkis. Ayse Erkmen. Istanbul. Leyla Gediz. A Milestone . Akbank Art Center in Istanbul. Walter Benjamin’s Parisian passages and today’s supermarkets. which put the concept ‘anachronism’ into an art-historical perspective. I think ‘reflection’ is an effective concept. a Turkish-born Armenian installation artist. Seza ˙ Paker. completed by visuals of bees fighting amongst each other. As a consequence.

Art struggles to rid itself of clichés. Graphic design in advertising tries to be or to exploit art in its absolute need to communicate signs. Communication works towards understanding by way of clichés and this negates the creativity in art in its resistance to these clichés. Art also tends to move towards this realm of signifier because of its own need to convey a message. Art does not necessarily ‘send a message’ within a particular system of signs and thereby forget its primary aim: reflection or ‘self-reflection’. Art today tends towards communication. Popular images – or easily understood images – reflect the cult moments of art. means that a similarity of materials changes and redirects art towards similarity of method. but its principal aim remains reflection and therefore to indicate the importance of reflection. thereby leaving its own space.104 Downloaded by [Koc University] at 06:05 30 March 2012 communications. However. does a place like Istanbul need such a dialogue on reflection and communication? Translated by Nusret Polat . or the return to reflection. But art has never in its history been solely a medium of communication. and other informational systems of signs and ideologies or whatever name we give it. Self-reflection appears in art as the détournement of all materials and exhausts art.

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